MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Nate Parker. Starring Nate Parker, Armie Hammer
When God created humankind the world was filled with a multiplicity of language and hues and colors of beauty and distinction. Lesser powers at work in the world defied God’s holy order, choosing to discriminate, subjugate, enslave and kill those who failed to meet a more narrow definition of humanity. It has been over fifty years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Americans are still in conversation about the ways in which race impacts our daily life.
Any film about slavery in nineteenth-century America that can help us reflect upon our dark and troubled past is worthy of discussion. There have been some memorable entries in this genre (12 Years a Slave, Beloved, Roots (1977 and 2016)) as well as some notable misfires (Amistad) and exploitation mashups (Mandingo, Django Unchained).
The Birth of a Nation falls short of being a masterpiece but is compelling nevertheless and recommended for the many things that it does right.
The film tells the story of Nat Turner, an educated slave who led a 48-hour rebellion in 1831 against slave owners and their families. Nat Turner has long been considered a controversial figure. He became a self-ordained preacher, receiving his calling through incredible visions that came to him while working in the fields. When the uprising ensued over 60 people were slaughtered in brutal fashion, including men, women and children.
The film is not primarily concerned with this event but tells the story of Nat Turner’s life and his life on the plantation. Nat grows up surrounded by love in the midst of captivity. Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), Nat’s childhood friend will later becomes his master; their relationship is complicated and conflicted. When Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is purchased, Nat finds someone to love.
The most pertinent topic in the film is the use and misuse of Scripture. Nat learns to read at an early age and is encouraged to learn the Bible by his owners, who take him to other plantations to preach the passages of scripture that reinforce slavery. It is only through the continued study of the Bible that Turner discovers the words that also encourage liberation from the shackles of oppression.
The film is filled with scenes of visual beauty and heartfelt compassion. There are also moments of horrific violence and brutal lynching. There is a closing scene that brought my wife to tears and had me rolling my eyes. Writer-director-star Nate Parker has talent to spare. But Nat Turner’s story is not the story of The Birth of a Nation, but neither was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 racist masterpiece. I guess that’s the point.
Three halos: A fast-moving tale of slavery that’s filled with powerful moments if not historical accuracy.
Four pitchforks: It’s slavery, so expect racism, degradation, brief nudity, and off-screen rape; extreme acts of violence; the use of Scripture as a tool of oppression.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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